The Sea

The ocean and waterways of North Carolina's beautiful southern coast satisfy a wide range of interests. Whether your passion is swimming, boating, surfing, fishing or simply watching waves, the sea offers endless possibilities for exploration, education and contemplation.

Binoculars are great for spotting ships at sea, watching the playful dolphins and whales, and keeping an eye on pelicans as they dive for fish.

A truly fun activity is to ride the Fort Fisher-Southport ferry across the wide mouth of the Cape Fear River from Fort Fisher at the southern tip of Pleasure Island to the charming village of Southport (or vice versa).


If swimming is your watersport or relaxation of choice, you've come to the right place. The ocean offers numerous possibilities for everyone from the wader to the long-distance swimmer. For your safety in late spring and summer, lifeguards are posted at many of the beaches in the area. You can be called closer to shore if the lifeguard thinks you're getting too far out for your own safety. Follow their instructions - these trained professionals are looking out for your best interests.

Rip currents are unseen dangers lurking in the water, dangers that Insiders respect. If you are swimming and are suddenly pulled in a frightening way by the currents, the most important thing to remember is to stay calm. Panic leads to exertion, which leads to dangerous fatigue. If you find yourself in a rip current, relax and let it carry you on its natural course toward the sea. Within a few minutes, it will dissipate. Then you can swim parallel to the shoreline to get out of the rip current area and back to shore. Do not try to swim straight back into shore against the rip current; you'll only tire yourself out.

Another word of warning. Do not swim when you're tired. Of the accidents that occur in local waters, a large percentage occur when people have traveled several hours to reach the beach and immediately go into the water. Their bodies and minds are weary from travel and sitting in a confined space. Give yourself time to stretch and relax before jumping into the waves.

Remember. Don't swim in inlets because you may not be seen by a speeding boat; don't swim alone; and don't swim in the Cape Fear River at and below Wilmington unless you can tolerate the company of alligators and big ships. Although the river is not particularly wide, it is deep - up to 42 feet - and has fast currents that have to be experienced to be believed. If it looks like the river is flowing upstream (northward), it is, during high tide.


Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach and Topsail Island are popular places for surfing, but there are some regulations that must be followed. Surfers must wear a leash for the safety of others in the water. Lifeguards are fastidious about enforcing this rule. In some places, surf zones are established to prevent interference between surfers, swimmers and fishermen. Watch for these zones. See our Watersports section for more complete information on surfing.

Tides and Weather

The tides are such an important factor in coastal communities that their comings and goings are part of the daily weather forecast. Be aware of them if you splash out to sandbars, jetties or islands at low tide. Changing tides could make the trip back to shore a daunting swim.

Storms and threatening weather are taken seriously on the coast. Get out of the water and off the beach when these often-spectacular weather events take place. Lightning on the beach is very dangerous, and you should seek immediate shelter inside a building or in your car. Small-craft advisories are to be heeded without fail.

If a hurricane watch is announced, it's a good idea to make preliminary plans to leave the area. Should the watch upgrade to a hurricane warning, area beaches are often evacuated. Recent major hurricanes have demonstrated the need to take official recommendations or mandates seriously. Emergency management professionals have their hands full in these events so avoid adding to the confusion by sight-seeing on the beach.

On the positive side, most of the storms in this area are simple summer thunder-showers that pass quickly. Take your cue from the lifeguards as to when it's safe to return to the water.


Ready to go boating? As of May 2010, North Carolina law requires that anyone under the age of 26 must successfully complete a NASBLA approved boating education course before operating any vessel propelled by a motor of 10 HP or greater.

If you trailer your boat, there are ample public boat ramps throughout the area (see our Fishing section). If you choose to leave your boat at the water, the area's marinas offer a variety of services, including dry-dockage, wet slips and storage (see our Marinas section). Boating possibilities include the Cape Fear River and its adjacent branches, the Atlantic Ocean, the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) and area lakes.

Fuel and other amenities are available in many places, generally on the ICW. If you don't have a boat of your own, you can take advantage of one of the charter services for sailing craft and, of course, tour and deep-sea fishing boats that cater to all cruising needs (see our Watersports and Fishing sections for listings). Boaters should understand the rules of the water when operating their own boats or chartering someone else's. Many waterways, especially the ICW at Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach, can become heavily congested. Educate yourself on boating safety and navigation rules before going out on the waterways (see our Watersports section for information about safety, resources, regulations and other topics of importance to boaters).

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